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The Different Types of Malnutrition in Children

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

The Different Types of Malnutrition in Children

Hearing the word malnutrition often leads people to think of thin, underweight kids. But, did you know that there are different types of malnutrition? Each of the types has different causes and exhibits various symptoms. Learn more about malnutrition in children here.

Malnutrition, an Overview

Malnutrition doesn’t only mean being undernourished or underweight. The prefix mal originated from the Latin word, which means “bad,” and many of our common words somewhat express this meaning. Examples include malfunction, maladjusted, and malformed.

That’s why, when we discuss malnutrition, we need to remember that it points out bad nutrition; the term doesn’t automatically indicate undernourishment.

But, what does bad nutrition entail?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are three general types of malnutrition, namely:

  • Undernutrition
  • Micronutrient deficiencies and excess
  • Overweight, obesity, and other diet-related non-communicable diseases

Simply put, malnutrition refers to imbalances in the energy and nutrients that our bodies need and the energy and nutrients we actually receive.

Types of Malnutrition in Children

What are the types, causes, and symptoms of malnutrition in children?


Undernutrition happens when a child has deficiencies in their overall caloric consumption. Similarly, kids who have protein deficiencies are also known to experience undernutrition.

Deficiencies in overall caloric and protein intake usually happen when the child has no access to food, probably due to financial constraints. Likewise, it can also occur when they have severe health conditions that affect nutrient absorption or lead to profound intake/appetite loss.

Please note that generally, children are vulnerable to undernutrition because they are growing faster; hence, they need a lot of calories.

Types of Undernutrition

We can further divide undernutrition into:


Marasmus is one of the types of malnutrition that results from severe deficiency of both calories and protein. It commonly happens in kids and produces symptoms like weight loss, dehydration, as well as fat and muscle loss. For babies, the best way to prevent marasmus is for the mother to breastfeed.


Kwashiorkor is also one of the types of malnutrition. It occurs when a child has more deficiency of protein than calories, usually when they have a high intake of carbohydrates but a low intake of protein.

Kwashiorkor is less common, and it tends to happen in older children or those who have been weaned. Kids who have kwashiorkor often appear puffier; sometimes, their tummies also protrude.


It often happens when children have no access to food for a long time. The most prominent symptom of starvation is excessive weight loss.

Micronutrient-Related Malnutrition

Second in our types of malnutrition is micronutrient-related malnutrition. Micronutrients, which we often refer to as vitamins and minerals, are crucial in producing substances like hormones and enzymes.

Additionally, children need them for proper growth and development (calcium for healthy bones, zinc for immunity, etc.)

Please keep in mind that between micronutrient-deficiency and micronutrient-excess, the first is more common, especially in kids. This is primarily because it takes a whole lot to consume excessive amounts of micronutrients.

For instance, school-aged children can have as much as 1,800 mg of vitamin C daily; however, the recommended daily intake is only about 40 to 45 mg. Even if we combine their typical citrus fruit consumption and supplement intake, the likelihood that they’ll surpass the upper limit is slim.

On the other hand, micronutrient deficiency can quickly become a problem for kids who do not have balanced nutrition. Case in point, children who don’t drink milk or consume dairy products may experience a deficiency in calcium.

Of course, micronutrient deficiency symptoms vary based on the vitamin or mineral the child lacks in their diet. For example, a deficiency in vitamin A can lead to vision problems, while zinc deficiency can result in growth retardation. Learn more about micronutrient deficiency here.

types of malnutrition

Overweight and Obesity

Having a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) usually occurs when kids consume more calories than they spend. Several things can lead to being overweight or obesity in children, like their eating habits, family history, and physical activities.

In general, a child with a diet high in refined sugar and processed foods are at risk of developing excessive weight. The risk further increases if they spend little to no time exercising.

To learn more about the causes and effects of obesity in children, you can refer to this article.

The Importance of Treating Malnutrition in Children

All the types of malnutrition we have discussed here should be treated because they can negatively affect your child’s overall health.

Undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, for instance, can hamper their growth and development and make them more vulnerable to illnesses. Similarly, overweight and obesity are known risk factors to certain chronic conditions like cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

If you suspect that your child has malnutrition, the best thing to do is to bring them to the doctor.

Learn more about Malnutrition in Children here


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jan 15, 2023

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